Unlike the millions of devoted followers of “The Helix” in her latest novel Woke Up Lonely, award-winning author Fiona Maazel prefers cats to cults as a remedy for solitude.
Zola: Your story revolves around the actions of “The Helix,” a modern cult that seeks to abate loneliness through communal living, massive gatherings, speed dating and erotic video chats. Did you research any specific cults for inspiration? Have you had any first-hand experience with cults?
Fiona Maazel: I did read a lot about political and therapeutic cults, yes: EST, The Way, RC. RC was probably the model for the Helix because of its emphasis on co-counseling and confession. I didn’t bother reading much about the religious cults because orthodoxy of any kind just doesn’t interest me. Orthodoxy is always and only one thing, which can be interesting in a social or cultural context, but which reads like dry toast on the page.
For a while, I was thinking about interviewing ex-cultists in person, but just ended up reading their testimonials. I have a way of letting research come at the expense of actual writing time, so I tried to limit the scope of my investigating. Plus there was always the chance I’d realize my life as a novelist is corrupt and hopeless and that joining a cult was a much better idea. You’d never hear from me again.
Zola: Woke Up Lonely takes place mostly in contemporary America. Is loneliness more of a problem here, and now?
FM: Loneliness is certainly a growing problem, though I don’t know if the problem is unique to the U.S. I was just reading about a survey taken in 1984 that asked people how many confidantes they had, and on average, the answer was three. Today? The answer is zero. If social and civic engagement is a measure of how tapped in we are to community (community being, ostensibly, an antidote to loneliness), then we are less tapped in than we were 30 years ago. Read a book like Bowling Alone, and the stats are right there.
What might be unique to America, though, is a cultural tension between individualism (which we prize) and notions of unity (which we also prize). Divided we fall, okay; but also: let’s single out the heroes among us. So in some way, the very thing that’s becoming a problem—individualism—is also part of the country’s long-time ethos.
Zola: Your female protagonist, Esme, is a CIA spy. If you could snoop in on anyone’s daily routine or conversation—past or present—who would it be and why?
FM: Oh, I don’t want to spy on anyone. Spying is really all about debunking myths you have about other people. You think you’re learning something new, but all you’re really learning is that Einstein walked around in saggy briefs like the rest of us. I’d much prefer to hang on to what I imagine people are doing privately than to have confirmed that people are just people. Also, the thrill of voyeurism is that it’s transgressive. But now that you’ve given me license, well, where’s the thrill in that?
Zola: Your novel is rare in that it provides both an action-packed plot and rich, multidimensional characters. How do you go about balancing the two? Do you craft your characters before figuring out what could happen to them, or do you first outline a riveting story and then think of its plausible actors?
FM: Characters come first. Character is fate—that’s what Novalis said—and I believe that up to a point. But I also believe in an indifferent universe that smites people indiscriminately. I believe in both and am always wanting to dramatize the tension between both attitudes, since they really cannot co-exist. This was Thomas Hardy’s great project, I think, and so I have made it mine, as well. So I think of my people and what they’re like and how their dispositions will naturally lead them into certain situations, but then I also like to create a context for these people that doesn’t care what they do or who they are. This is why some of my fiction seem antic or farcical, though of course it’s not. It’s just the result of what happens when you clash these competing world views.
Zola: The ultimate epiphany of the cult’s leader, Thurlow, is that he’ll always be lonely, but that he’d rather be lonely with others. Who do you most enjoy being lonely with?
FM: My cat, of course. Standard companion of the lonely worldwide. Just now, she’s hiding under the couch because I had one of her teeth pulled. So if you asked her the same question, I doubt she’d name me in return. My point being: I could be on the market any day.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.